by joel chaffee (photo by hörður sveinsson)

The titles of Múm’s last two releases are indicative of the band’s sound and intent. Both are invitations. 2007′s Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy was, though not widely recognized as such, a return to the wonder and satisfaction of 2002′s Finally We Are No One; the band’s latest, Sing Along To Songs You Don’t Know steps furthest away from Múm’s unique ability to make time  music stand still.

Artist: Mum
Song: Illuminated

This is a fine thing in a live setting, as Múm’s October 23 show at Le Poisson Rouge demonstrated. Numbers from Sing Along displayed a band playing music together, not assembling it in a post-productive swoon. Múm’s new songs are songs one can sing along to, as opposed to their first three LPs, which barely took form enough to tap a toe to. Their songs are songs now, no longer spaces of time that music inhabits.

Bandleader Gunnar Örn Tynes introduced ‘If I Were a Fish’ by saying that a fan had recently asked if the song was about Christ; with a chuckle he admitted it was not (Though Marc Hogan’s Pitchfork review is adamantly of the opposing view). Aside from the ethereal, ghostlike vocals from Ólöf Arnalds (also on violin) and Hildur Ingveldardóttir Guðnadóttir (and cello), all that ties ‘Fish’ to its band’s predecessors is the rhythm section’s lively and inconstant wandering beneath the haze of song. Happily, a merciful trumpet both gives and relents from above plucked violin, dulcimer, vocal harmonies. . . it is a full sound.

“You are so beautiful to us / We want to lock you in our house.” Live, seven musicians stomping through it, ‘Sing Along’ engaged and consumed. On the LP, the song is more a conundrum of intent. “You are so beautiful to us / We want to keep you as our pets.” They must be singing this to us, but it is not Sgt. Peppers’ invitation of “We’d love to take you home with us.” At its best, Múm’s sound is too untouchable for such overtness. They don’t tell about the gift, they give it. “Sing along to songs you don’t know / And you’ll never know.” But this is only true of Finally and Summer Make Good and Yesterday Was Dramatic; this is what made those LPs so thrilling to revisit. New, but familiar, each time. Sing Along is knowable, perhaps to too great an extent.

Largely dispensing with the formless, Múm is a band now. The drum of ‘Prophecies and Reversed Memories’ is a real drum, like a soldier’s, not an iceberg’s. ‘A River Don’t Stop To Breathe’ is about the vocals, which are not whispered but distinguished, turned up in the mix. ‘The Last Shapes of Never’ is the most songwriterly song the band has recorded, based on a delicately picked acoustic guitar line.

If coherent form is what the band is after nowadays, their best songs will be most effective live. For Sing Along‘s best two, this was true. ‘ Húllabbalabbalúú’, like the best of Poison Ivy, is a little creepy, swelling and building, climaxing, falling back. After chanting the song’s title, we are assured that “In these words we drown / Deep deep deep down.” What the band used to do is show this drowning, instead of giving it literal voice.

To be sure, it is courageous that the band has changed. Múm’s native brethren, Sigur Rós, continue to make the same beautiful record, leaving me to incessantly return to their first release to get where I want them to be taking me. Whereas Múm may misstep perfection, they are intent on varying their craft.

The best of the LPR show included Poison Ivy‘s infectious ‘A Little Bit, Sometimes,’ and ‘Marmalade Fires,’ the most blessedly childish thing since Finally We Are No One. They possess what Hogan adeptly called ‘”Múm’s eccentricities in the service of a triumphant feeling.” Live, the band maintained this achievement; on record, Sing Along is too far between being no one and singing along.

With all this talk of form, it was delightfully shocking that when the band came back onstage for a finale, they heeded the audience’s strenuous requests for Finally’s ‘Green Grass of Tunnel.’ “Can they do it here, live, now?” we wondered. After all this, can they play with form as before? And they did. Because, despite the tendency towards traditional song form, Múm’s is the business of sound, not words; the mystery of night, not definition of day. Hullabbalabbaluu.

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